Just Say No to Mideast Defense Pacts
Why should we now double and triple down on the region’s internecine conflicts?
They’re really going to do this, aren’t they? Last week, amid the UN General Assembly gabfest that mostly just clogs up Manhattan traffic, The New York Times revealed that the Biden administration is promoting a U.S.-Saudi mutual-defense treaty as a way to induce Riyadh into normalizing relations with Israel. Bloomberg, meanwhile, reports that a parallel defense pact with the Jewish state is also on the table.
The deals, per the Times, would be modeled after America’s defense pacts with Japan and South Korea, “considered among the strongest the United States has outside of its European pacts.” The treaty with Japan, sealed in 1951, calls on each side, in the case of an attack against the other, to “act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes”; the South Korean treaty has enshrined a similar commitment since 1953.
This, you might be saying, is bonkers. And you are absolutely correct: As if the United States doesn’t have enough current and developing conflicts on its hands, Team Biden wants to commit America to defending two conflict-prone nations in one of the world’s most turbulent regions. The motives are murky, though the political one seems obvious: The Biden administration is no doubt desperate to achieve a diplomatic triumph on the scale of Team Trump’s Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab states.
Whatever the motive, the arguments against such a proposal should get it laughed out of the Senate—that is, assuming the executive branch still honors the quaint constitutional procedure of submitting treaties to the upper chamber of Congress for ratification. Let’s go down the list:
First, Mideast defense pacts contradict the Biden administration’s own belief that Washington needs to get out of the Middle East in order to pursue strategic opportunities elsewhere, most notably East Asia. The United States spent the previous two decades fighting fruitless wars in the Middle East and North Africa, only recently and painfully extricating itself from Afghanistan (credit to President Biden on this count). So why would we now double and triple down, and in such a binding way, on the region’s internecine conflicts?
Energy, some might answer. This brings us to the second argument against the pacts: The United States is now a net exporter of petroleum products and will remain that way at least until the middle of the 21st century. Securing Mideast carbon supplies simply isn’t as important to America—not least a supposedly green America—as it was even a decade ago.
Third, there is the problem of scarce resources, attention, and priorities. It would be one thing if the United States were retrenching elsewhere in the world to devote itself to a new Pax Americana in the Middle East. But that isn’t what Washington is doing. We are fighting a proxy war against one nuclear and industrial powerhouse, Russia, and itching for one with another such state, China. Assuming for argument’s sake that those are worthy or necessary wars, can the United States also afford to let itself get entangled in the enmity between Shiite and Sunni, Persian and Arab?
Fourth, a pact with Saudi Arabia especially wouldn’t even let Washington score ideological points for “defending democracy.” Yes, Saudi society under de facto ruler Muhammad bin Salman has been forcibly liberalized. But the country remains one of the world’s most brutally repressive. American lawmakers should be disgusted by the idea of America’s men and women in uniform being treaty-bound to defend a hub for modern slavery (among many other repulsive dimensions of Saudi Arabia).
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Fifth, the United States military doesn’t have any bases in Israel and only small ones in Saudi Arabia, totaling under 3,000 troops. Compare these numbers to the nearly 130,000 soldiers deployed at installations in the Pacific, from which they may make good on commitments to allies like Japan and South Korea. Israel probably won’t accept American bases on its territory, and for good reason, while expanding installations in Saudi Arabia would run into the scarcity problem above (or are we going to ditch the all-volunteer military and restore the draft?).
Finally, the whole effort isn’t worth the candle. Perhaps formal diplomatic normalization between Riyadh and Jerusalem isn’t on the cards unless the United States guarantees Saudi defense with a treaty. But Saudi Arabia (along with its satrapies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) are already in a de facto alliance with the Jewish state, meant to counter Iran. This is for the good: The two rival regional blocs, it is to be hoped, can learn to balance and deter each other without the need for a Mideast-weary America to mix it up with them.
So what, really, would the United States get out of this deal? As one progressive foreign-policy thinker told me, it’s a defense gift to Saudi, sold to the American public as an Israeli-Saudi “peace treaty.” That’s an awful bargain.